Hugo Reading: Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

When the Hugo nominees were announced, Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest was the only one of the three Best Novel nominees I hadn't already read that I was pretty sure I would read. I have very little interest in Robert Sawyer's work, and I've read just enough of Paolo Bacigalupi's short fiction to dread the thought of reading something of his at novel length. I may yet read The Wind-Up Girl out of a sense of obligation, because people keep saying it's brilliant, but his previous Hugo-nominated short fiction was so crushingly depressing that I'm not excited by the prospect.

I wanted very badly to like Palimpsest, not least because the other novels on the list-- Julian Comstock, The City and the City, and Boneshaker were perfectly fine novels, but nothing I'd be thrilled to crown the Best Novel of 2009. Also, it has a great central conceit: a city that is like a sexually transmitted disease. If you have sex with someone who is infected, you get to visit a section of the city of Palimpsest in your dreams. Each new infected partner you have sex with gets you access to a different neighborhood. Infected people carry a tattoo-like mark somewhere on their body, showing a map of the neighborhood that they give you access to.

It's a neat idea, and the sections describing Palimpsest are very evocatively written:

Colophon Station is the central transit terminal for the trains of Palimpsest. The stately prewar cinquefoils show the evening sky, deeper than gold and warmer than blue. The great ambulatory is lined with pillars of plum trees trained to support the long, ochre-tiled roof, blossoming grasping branches twisting the doves into living capitals. Within, eleven pyrite staircases spiral down to the grand floor, a marble expanse in which the old wheel of Palimpsest is laid out in rosewood, the face of the circular city when it was small and unassuming, a walled place, home only to a few celery farmers and astronomers. Great lancet arches lead further into the earth, labeled with stern roman capitals: Points East, Points North, Points Far, Points Near. In the center of the rosewood wheel the Verdigris Fountain splashes and trickles: a woman bound up in railroad ties, her arms flung upward in ecstasy, water streaming from her palms, her hair spread out as in a many-armed corona. Green age encrusts her, her eyes worn smooth by water, her nose half-gone. Yet still she watches over travelers, Our Lady of Safe Transfer, Star of the Underground.

The ceiling of Colophon Station is unpainted, for it was the desire of the architect, whose name was long ago buried under a black quoin, that passersby become aware in the most piquant way that they have passed underground. Therefore the roof of Colophon is planted over with flame-colored ginger flowers, whose thick golden roots reach down thirstily into the interior, and any traveler may look up and see only earth and straining roots, and the wonderful smell of it penetrates the skin for days afterward.

Sadly, I'm giving up without finishing this book. The proximate cause of my abandonment is that the book got overwritten with the Charles Stross novella of the same title when updating the Palm I use as an e-book reader. The real reason, though, is that it just wasn't working for me.

Fundamentally, Palimpsest is a story about addiction (at least it is in the first ~half-- I suppose it could become something else later): it follows the lives of four people who become infected with the city, and who then become obsessed with it. This is a literary form with a fine tradition, but it's risky.

The most obvious problem with doing a story about addiction is that you need to convince the reader that whatever the characters are addicted to is sufficiently wonderful to become addicted to. This poses a problem similar to the problem of making one of your characters the World's Greatest Poet-- at some point, you need to provide some examples of that character's poetry, and if you're not a damn fine poet yourself, it's going to end badly.

The descriptions of Palimpsest are lovely, but they just don't work for me as being all that wonderful. They've got a cool surreal quality to them, as befits a city of dreams, but they're not sufficiently cool that I would be willing to have unpleasant sex with random strangers to get more of them. And there's a lot of unpleasant sex with random strangers involved in the book.

The other way people deal with the depiction of addiction is to show the effect of the addiction on the characters. That is, as a reader, you watch the characters descend into depravity, and say "Wow, that must really be something." If the reader identifies with the character at the start, and then watches that character throw their life away for something, that sort of sneaks the compelling reason for the addiction in through the back door.

The problem here is that this technique requires you to start with characters who are reasonably normal, or at least normal enough for the reader to identify with them. And the four principal characters in Palimpsest all start out crazy. Which means it's a book about crazy people becoming obsessed with something that could only be compelling to crazy people, and having unpleasant sex with random strangers in order to get more of it.

There's only so much great prose style can do to carry you past that, and it's not enough to make me want to continue reading. It's a bold idea, and I can see where some people might well find it award-worthy, but I have very limited fiction-reading time these days, and when I find myself coming up with ways to avoid reading more of the novel in progress, it's time to put that book down and try something else.

This leaves me in kind of a bind when it comes to the Best Novel category. Because, honestly, I'm not blown away by any of the nominees I've read. Both Julian Comstock and The City and the City strike me as being more about the authors showing off their cleverness than anything else, and while Boneshaker is a fun read and competently done, it's not exactly ambitious. God knows, there have been Hugos given to books with less literary ambition than Boneshaker, but I didn't vote for any of those, either. There's really nothing on the ballot that I feel enthusiastic about voting for-- I wouldn't call it a complete travesty if either Wilson or Mieville won, but I wouldn't be all that fired up to have either book held up as the best of the year in the genre.

I'm going to switch to reading the short fiction nominees now, and see how that goes (actually, I've already started: Kress's "Act One" is crashingly obvious, and McIntosh's "Bridesicle" is every bit as good as the name would suggest). If I have time after I'm done, I may give The Wind-Up Girl a shot, just because I'd like to have something to vote for rather than a whole list of things I want to vote against.

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From reading your blog I get an impression (perhaps unjustified) that you dislike the vast majority of what you read. Not that I'm complaining I prefer reading take downs than praise but maybe you have simply grown out of fiction? What was the last fiction you've considered really brilliant?

Oh and Happy birthday! (via Sarah K.)

From reading your blog I get an impression (perhaps unjustified) that you dislike the vast majority of what you read.

That's funny-- not that long ago, I was worried that I was posting only positive reviews...

The last really brilliant thing I read... I have a high threshold for "really brilliant," but it was probably Robert Reed's novella "Truth" from last year's Hugo ballot. (Though I may be saying that just because it came up in conversation yesterday.)

I do like most of the fiction I read, though. Looking at nearby shelves, I recently read all three of Dave Duncan's alchemist books, which were great fun, and Guy Kay's Under Heaven was pretty good. Daniel Fox's The Dragon in Chains and Jade Man's Skin were well done.

I've read a lot of stuff lately that isn't what I would like it to be-- I like the idea of urban fantasy, for example, but far too much of it degenerates into "My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend," which is starting to get on my nerves. But I do enjoy most of what I read-- I just don't post about all of it.

As I commented in your previous Palimpsest post, I've read the whole thing and it never does anything. You've hit pretty much the salient points I would make - the characters are not anyone worth empathizing with and the city itself was surreal, but nothing to aspire towards. It had a Wonderland feel to it and the 4 characters were all deranged versions of Alice.

One thing that did bother me throughout was the (non)explanation of how the transition occurred. Yes, they had the "markings", but each person had different ones and in no way was it explained how the sexual act translated other words, how was the translation point chosen from the participants (trying to be clean here)? All I got was the feeling the author wanted to titillate (no pun intended) the reader with some semi-porn.

I am reading "The Windup Girl" now. Interesting, but not really grabbing me.

Of the books I've read in the past year, my favorites are Stieg Larsson's trilogy and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (fiction); and Carl Zimmer's Microcosm (non-fiction). Don't know if any of these qualifies as "brilliant," though Larsson's books are as well done as anything I've read in the crime/suspense genre. Too bad there'll be no more from him.

None of these are science fiction, which is very surprising, as it's my all time favorite fiction genre. Nor did Pynchon's Inherent Vice make it, though he's my favorite author.

I just haven't seen a lot of fabulous science fiction lately. It's kind of like today's NFL, where a different team seems to win the Super Bowl every year, but no dynasties: There are lots of people turning out good reads, but nothing that will live on down the ages.

Sounds like a novel so high-concept that it's all concept and no novel. Which is a shame, although not surprising since everything else I've read about Palimpsest (at least, by people I know) has been fairly negative.

If you haven't tried the two volume Orphan's Tale, you might like that. It's a collection of very tightly linked, almost recursive, short stories.

By John Novak (not verified) on 18 Jun 2010 #permalink

"No Award" is always an option.

By Jo Walton (not verified) on 19 Jun 2010 #permalink

I found that the ending, and the reveal of the narrator's identity, changed the meaning of the novel for me pretty significantly. YMMV, of course, and if you didn't like it, you didn't (and the ending won't change that). The author herself is pretty shocked at the book's popularity and nominations, and admits readily that it's very much a niche book.

One thing that did bother me throughout was the (non)explanation of how the transition occurred. Yes, they had the "markings", but each person had different ones and in no way was it explained how the sexual act translated other words, how was the translation point chosen from the participants (trying to be clean here)?

I thought the book was pretty explicit that the infected fell asleep and visited Palimpsest in their dreams. Or did you mean that you didn't understand how different people ended up with their individual pieces of map?

By MadGastronomer (not verified) on 19 Jun 2010 #permalink